I first read about the BARF diet twenty years ago, in my early days as a dog breeder. BARF is a raw dog food diet originally espoused by Australian veterinarian Dr Ian Billinghurst. Standing for Biologically Appropriate Raw Food, BARF advocates feeding dogs in a way that simulates as close as possible the diet they were designed to eat through millions of years of evolution.
Like most veterinarians I was indoctrinated as a student to the feeding of commercially prepared pet foods. We were told that to not feed these “balanced” preparations meant risking nutritional deficiencies and diseases in pets. Despite the brain washing, the BARF diet made sense to me, and I switched my breeding dogs to it straight away. Over the ensuing decades my dogs have shown great health and vitality, high fertility and easy birthing. With great results like that I am definitely a fan of raw dog food diets.
And the health benefits of raw food such as fed in the BARF diet is supported by a very famous study called Pottenger’s cats. Back in the 1930s Francis Pottenger kept four breeding colonies of cats, all fed the same diet of meat, milk and cod liver oil. The only variation he made between them was that in one the whole diet was fed raw, whereas in the others either the milk, or meat, or both were fed cooked.
Over several generations the health of the cat colony on the 100% raw diet stayed strong. However, the health of those on the cooked food declined markedly, being worst in the cats on 100% cooked food. Pottenger’s study showed that cats were a lot healthier on raw food than cooked, and I believe the same is true for our dogs today.
However, there are a few things anyone wishing to follow the BARF diet or any other raw food diet for dogs should keep in mind:
1. On the BARF Diet, Mineral Supplementation is Advisable.
The soils we grow food on today are deficient in many minerals. Farmers only need to add NPK (nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium) to get a great crop. Meat animals are sometimes given additional supplements, particularly where lack of them affects productivity. For example, in my home state of Western Australia many sheep farmers aren’t profitable unless they supplement with selenium and sometimes cobalt.
What this means for the health of you and your pets is that you should assume your food is deficient and supplement accordingly. Multi-vitamin/mineral supplements are widely available and are recommended. Another option I follow is to make my own supplement using a combination of natural superfoods such as lecithin, kelp powder and brewers yeast, all of which can be sourced from your local health food store.
2. Variety is Essential to a Healthy Raw Dog Food Diet.
Near to me is a poultry processing plant that sells chicken necks for just a buck a kilogram. That’s about 80% cheaper than the price everywhere else. I have a lot of dogs so the chicken necks appear to be a great option for cost effective raw feeding. However, feeding any raw necks to dogs risks a steady diet of traces of thyroid tissue which contains thyroid hormones. This can lead to your pet’s thyroid being overstimulated, causing potentially serious health issues and signs such as hyperactivity, weight loss, hunger, thirst, frequent urination and fast heart rate.
The point is, don’t be tempted to feed a diet dominated by one or two ingredients. Variety is essential to health. A little neck meat from whatever source is fine, but don’t make it the basis of your pet’s diet. Mix it up with different animals and different parts of the body, including occasional organ meats.
3. Practice Basic Hygiene when Handling Raw Meats
Opponents of BARF diets or raw food diets for dogs point to the risk of bacterial infection inherent in using uncooked meats. For sure, raw meat can harbour harmful bacteria such as salmonella and E. Coli. However, practicing the basic hygiene always associated with handling meat – such as thorough cleansing of knives, bowls and cutting boards – is sufficient precaution.
Despite food standards to the contrary, commercial pet foods are commonly contaminated with these bacteria anyway. And one in three healthy dogs harbour these bacteria in their gut with no apparent ill-effects.
Further, poor quality grains used in many commercial pet foods can be tainted by mould, infecting it with dangerous levels of aflatoxins.
4. Worm your Dog Regularly
Raw meat, especially offal that has not been processed through an accredited abattoir, can harbour tapeworm cysts capable of infecting your dog, and rendering its faeces potentially dangerous to humans. So be cautious about feeding your pet offal from home-killed or trapped animals, and if you do, maintain the regular recommended worming schedule using a wormer that is effective against tapeworm.
5. Should BARF Diet Vegetables be Fed Cooked or Raw?
Many proponents of the BARF diet or raw food diet for dogs in general, advocate that vegetables and fruits should also be fed raw. I am not so sure. Edible plants commonly contain anti-nutrients to protect themselves from predation by animals. Cooking these plants destroys the anti-nutrients rendering them safe to eat and nutritious.
Cabbage for example is a very nutritious and inexpensive way to add vegetables to your dog’s diet. In it’s raw state, however, it contains a compound known as thiocyanate. Thiocyanate suppresses the thyroid gland and can with continuous use cause the disease known as hypothyroidism. However, light cooking inactivates this compound, rendering the cabbage safe to eat.
Here are some others:
* Spinach and broccoli contains the antinutrient phytate (phytic acid) that inhibits mineral absorption, and can lead to deficiency.
* Oxalate, an organic crystal that can lead to the formation of kidney stones, is naturally high in a wide variety of raw foods, including silverbeet (chard), spinach, beetroot, leek, parsley and many nuts and fruits.
* Protease inhibitors interfere with the digestion of protein and are high in raw legumes (e.g beans), cucumber, broccoli, spinach and potato.
* Lectins form a coating on the lining of the small intestine, blocking the absorption of nutrients. Lectins are high in raw plants from the nightshade family (potato, eggplant, tomato, peppers), zucchini, sweet potato, carrot, beets, asparagus, turnip, mushroom, pumpkin and radish as well as beans, grains and cereals.
It’s not normal for carnivores to eat significant quantities of raw fruit or vegetables. In the natural situation, carnivores kill their prey and eat it all – hooves, skin, fur, muscles, bones and gut. Carnivores like dogs are really omnivores which get their plant foods as partly digested vegetable matter in the gut of their prey. Dogs also like to eat poo, yet another dietary source of plant material. However, in all these scenarios the plant matter is eaten in a partially or fully digested state. The processes of digestion include mastication (chopping and grinding), addition of digestive enzymes, and fermentation by gut microbes. These processes neutralize many if not all the anti-nutrients contained in raw vegetative tissue. Ideally we’d ferment these vegetables and fruits before feeding them to our pets, but failing that lightly cooking them seems a sound alternative.
I remain a great fan of raw dog food diets such as the BARF diet, follow it with my own breeding dogs, and recommend it to all my owners.